Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon battle was one for the ages

Bjorn Borg needed five scintillating sets to defeat John McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final. Rob Taggart/Central Press/Getty Imag

Key moments of the Open era: Part 2: Daylight (1978-87)

1. The new U.S Open
No tennis venue more personified the sport's rapid growth than the site of the U.S. National Championships, which in 1968 became the U.S. Open. For decades, the tournament's home was the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, a venerable, patrician club. But as tennis' popularity soared in the '70s, the U.S. Open outgrew Forest Hills. USTA president Slew Hester found a new site on the grounds of the 1964 World's Fair. The USTA National Tennis Center, a public facility that truly signaled tennis' ascent from a private garden party to a contemporary big-time sport of clutter and commerce, opened in 1978.

2. Australian Open goes big league
For years the Australian Open had grown increasingly moribund, showing signs that it was a Grand Slam event in name only in everything from its ragged facility to its painfully shallow player fields. At one point there were even rumblings it would lose its Grand Slam status. But in the mid-'80s, Tennis Australia at last stepped up, building a state-of-the-art facility that opened in January 1988.

3. Chris and Martina build an epic rivalry
It's one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports, 80 matches of supreme contrast. Evert was cool as a cucumber, a diligent baseliner. Navratilova played with passion and lived to attack. By the '80s these two stood head and shoulders above the rest, their excellence inspiring one another to improve, whether it was Navratilova enhancing her groundstrokes or Evert spending more time in the gym. Between them they would win 36 Grand Slam singles titles.

4. The new regimen
Though Ivan Lendl's forehand made him formidable, it wasn't until he took a page from Navratilova's book and stepped up his fitness regimen that he at last emerged as the world's best player. He and Navratilova both showed that physical fitness translates into mental toughness, a model now followed by every aspiring pro. Lendl's bruising physical game took the spirit of attrition created by Bjorn Borg to new heights -- and also built a template for today's rigorous brand of baseline tennis.

5. John McEnroe saves Davis Cup
In the late '70s, Davis Cup -- once more significant than the Grand Slams -- was in disarray. For personal reasons, a number of players such as Jimmy Connors could hardly be bothered to compete. Such were the politics of tennis that nations like Australia had seen some of their top players banned from the event earlier in the decade. And global political factors always triggered complications for countries such as South Africa and the Eastern European nations. Added to that was a muddled, hard-to-understand schedule. Then came John McEnroe. Beginning in 1978 -- and coinciding with his cometlike rise to the top of the game -- McEnroe would, over the next seven years, never fail to answer his country's call. Not only did he pace the U.S. to four victories during this time, but he also single-handedly increased Davis Cup's credibility.

6. Borg and McEnroe play one for the ages
Bjorn Borg had been one of tennis' first rock stars, a handsome, tranquil Swede whose two-handed backhand and heavy topspin groundstrokes in large part built a model for the way the game is now played. McEnroe was Jimmy Connors' successor: a fiery American left-hander with his own distinctive brand of artful, attacking tennis. Their 1980 Wimbledon final hinged on a scintillating 22-minute fourth-set tiebreak, won at last by McEnroe by the remarkable score of 18-16. Showcasing his trademark poise, Borg won the match 8-6 in the fifth to earn a record fifth straight Wimbledon singles title. But the feisty McEnroe had gained many admirers, too. Until the 2008 Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer Wimbledon final, Borg-McEnroe was considered the finest match in tennis history.

7. Introducing Boris Becker
Boris Becker's manager would claim his ascent changed the course of European history, his triumphs creating enough good vibes to help unify Germany. There's no question Becker was instantly compelling, bursting on the scene at 17 to win the singles at Wimbledon in 1985 with a display of guts, power, shot-making and, of course, his signature shot, the leaping volley. He'd back up his title a year later with a successful defense, win another title in 1989 and, all told, reached seven Wimbledon singles finals.

8. Super Saturday '84
Sept. 8, 1984 is considered the greatest day in tennis history, featuring three matches of sustained quality and drama starring five future Hall of Famers, all aired on national TV and stretching into primetime. CBS' coverage began that day with a dramatic five-set men's semifinal between Ivan Lendl and Aussie Pat Cash. Lendl saved a match point with a running topspin lob winner to eke it out in a fifth-set tiebreak. Then it was time for the women's final, pitting six-time titlist Chris Evert and defending champ Martina Navratilova. This one also went the distance, with Navratilova taking it in three, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. Finally, at 7:28 p.m., John McEnroe took on his most bitter rival, two-time defending champion Jimmy Connors. The two battled tooth and nail for nearly four hours, combining for 65 winners before McEnroe won a taut five-setter 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. This remains tennis' Woodstock, the peak of the sport's boom years.

9. Connors returns to the top
In 1982, Jimmy Connors was turning 30, long past his days as a youthful renegade. Just when it seemed he would be the third wheel behind John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, Connors recaptured the world's No. 1 ranking. On July 4, he earned his first Grand Slam title in nearly four years, rallying from two sets to one down to beat McEnroe in the Wimbledon finals. One key had been an upgraded serve. Connors' fine tennis continued in New York, where he dismantled Ivan Lendl with characteristic bravado.

10. Noah's arc
Eminently likable, always compelling, constantly on the attack, Yannick Noah brought exceptional passion and intensity to the 1983 French Open. Outside of these two weeks, he would only once reach another Grand Slam semi. But over the course of this fortnight, his game clicked into the gear. Relentless attacking carried him to victory in the final over the titleholder, Mats Wilander. After Noah became the first Frenchman to win Roland Garros since 1946, he and the crowd commenced a soccer-like celebration, a triumph highlighted by a tearful Noah embracing his father.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.